The transmission of poverty from parents to children is the defining issue of this generation of Mississippians. Fewer than one in 20 children in Mississippi who grow up in the bottom fifth of the income scale will ascend to the top fifth during their lifetimes. In some parts of the state, the chances of upward mobility are closer to one in 50. Until the chain of poverty is broken, it will continue to define every generation that comes behind it.
Today, over one in three Mississippi children grow up below the federal poverty line, and a staggering proportion — 76 percent — of those kids live in homes with a single mother. Mississippi has the highest rate of single-mother families in the country. Of the 13 counties in the United States where single mothers lead over 20 percent of households, five are in Mississippi:
The relationship between single moms and child poverty is no coincidence. Statistic after statistic points to a system that is stacked against single working women. Last week, Carol Burnett of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative discussed their challenges on NPR’s Here & Now:
Despite equivalent or superior graduation rates compared to men, women in Mississippi earn an average of $11,000 less than their male counterparts. Women remain overwhelmingly concentrated in low-wage jobs. In fact, eight out of every ten low-wage workers in Mississippi are women.
Women in low-wage jobs struggle to make ends meet even before taxes (Mississippi has no state Earned Income Tax Credit to support low-income workers) or childcare are taken into consideration. Minimum wage in Mississippi is $7.25 an hour, which means that a full-time working mother in a minimum wage job earns approximately $15,000 per year.
According to the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, the majority of Mississippi’s working parents of children under five meet the income eligibility requirements for childcare assistance. The Mississippi Child Care Payment Program should reduce out-of-pocket costs to $700 (childcare runs in the thousands before subsidies), but chronic underfunding has excluded two-thirds of the eligible children from being served. Currently over 13,000 Mississippi children sit on the waiting list.
Perversely, those opposed to social welfare spending who vote to underfund childcare assistance and other work supports for women actually increase reliance on government. Women who want to work but cannot afford childcare face an impossible Sophie’s Choice between economic independence and the needs of their children.
Mississippi’s working mothers shouldn’t have to make that choice. The first step in breaking the transmission of poverty is to give women the economic security they deserve.